There's no secret to doing a PhD and being a parent. Each day feels like a balancing act. They are two of the most challenging things in your life and doing them at the same time is something you don't want to take lightly. But there are ways I try to lighten the burden by changing habits and routines.
To summarise, the ways I try to navigate my PhD and parent responsibilities break down to the following behaviours:
- know your limits and don't push them
- accept you need to keep to a more strict schedule
- make the most of personal hours
- pretend there's not a huge mess in the house
- accept you can't do everything
- use the opportunity to be flexible with your PhD hours and consider part time
With these in mind, I'm going to go into them in more detail.
Have a better understanding of your limits
I don't push myself as much as I used to. This is primarily because my recovery time is limited. Whereas I used to be able to push through a long day, safe in the knowledge I would be able to spend the last few hours of the day lazing about watching TV and eating junk food, that's a luxury I no longer have. I have a small person who wants to play, wants food and needs to be put to bed, eventually. And before me ideally...
Weekends are the same. I used to be able to have an entire lazy weekend. Not any more. I need to make sure someone burns off her endless energy.
I know my limits and try to stick within the boundaries to avoid burnout. To my PhD supervisors, it might mean I seem 'lazier' or 'less engaged' but to me it's about survival, both mentally and physically.
Keep a strict schedule
One of the biggest advantages and disadvantages is the need to work to a strict schedule. I need to work within the confines of a nursery day.
Whilst this has the advantage of focusing the time spent on the PhD, it has the disadvantage of not being able to spend a little extra time finishing things off for the day. I have to leave whether its finished or not. That has led to a few stressful days, believe me! At the same time I maintain a healthy habit of not working more hours than I should. Any time spent outside nursery hours is optional.
We all know that work expands to fill the time available.
I never felt more productive than when we were in the pandemic. I was limited to 4 hours of a work a day. There's nothing like having a short period of time to focus actions and be efficient. Being limited in time still meant I was behind, but I made sure the 4 hours counted.
Leverage the advantage of limited hours and try not to get bogged down in the negatives.
Make the most of 'personal hours'
It's no secret I get up early. The hours between 5-7am is my time. You may prefer night, but whatever works for you is good. The important thing is identifying when it is and protecting it. Make it a decent chunk of time either before the kid gets up or after they go to bed.
So that I feel I have a purpose beyond being a mother and doing a PhD (which should be enough!) I get up early to work on personal projects. I've had some kind of 'side business' since I was about 14. For better or worse, it's a habit I cannot break. I used to make jewellery and medals for races. I also tried greetings cards and clay animals. My husband and I did wedding photography semi-professionally for a few years. Then I moved onto selling postage stamps. The only reason I stopped the latter is due to logistical challenges around conveniently being able to access a post office. I turned to blogging and writing as something more flexible in the confines of doing a PhD and having a small person. It also really helps me in my PhD, so it aligns a bit more with my future career direction.
I find writing helps sort out my brain for the rest of the day. Occasionally I even do creative writing which is super fun. Getting the brain space for this is challenging though!
Pretend there's not a huge mess in the house
My house is a mess of kids toys most of the time. The washing always needs done. There's a whole load of things I need to rehome, like a fish tank and about 30 stamp albums. At this stage in my life I just accept that they are not my priority right now. The only area kept consistently tidy is my work area as I can't work if it's too messy.
I'm not going to lie that a tidy home makes for a tidy mind. Therefore it does stress me out that the house is a mess. The idea of minimalism is an extremely attractive one! However neither my daughter nor my husband wish to conform to this way of thinking so for now I am stuck between a mountain of toys and blankets (literally).
I try to think of the horses who wear blinkers to reduce distractions and keep focus on what's ahead. That's me. I know it's there, I just force myself to ignore it. There's more exciting things to do.
Accept you can't do everything
I always think that we have enough time to do 2.5 things in our lives. If you're particularly efficient, do a lot of task delegation, and need only limited 'recovery time' unlike me, you might be able to squeeze in 3. We need to allow an additional 0.5 for things like eating, some amount of self care and day-to-day needs like getting fresh air.
With this in mind, basically it means we can prioritise just 2 and a half things in our lives. If you work it out, with 8 hours sleep a day, and divide the remainder of hours in the week by 3, we get about 37 hours; the same as a typical full time job.
For me, that's my PhD for 1, my daughter for 1 and my writing for 0.5.
I might be able to get other bits and bobs done around these, but these 2.5 things are the only ones I'll make any headway in. I don't have much of a social life, but that's OK. I don't have time to focus on any other hobbies. Nor do I spend enough time cleaning or exercising. I just try to squeeze them in the remaining 18.5 hours.
I don't take enough holidays and I can't keep up with the rest of my peers in terms of output. That's just what I've come to accept. I don't see them as bad things, it's just a different journey. I just give to the world in a different way that isn't so strongly dictated by my PhD.
Use the flexibility of a PhD schedule to your advantage
A PhD is unlike a 9-5 job in that the hours you work are able to be more flexible. Although I try to keep work within the 9-5 boundary, just occasionally I need to leverage the flexibility a PhD offers me. I also make full use of the ability of a PhD to be part-time, by going 0.8 FTE. It's a great balance between work and the extra demands of being a parent. I know that I am quite lucky to have this split, but it helps so much in being able to manage everything.
Ultimately she loves coming into my work and I also spend a lot of time with her. She understands that sometimes I have to work, she might get extra TV but I'll always be there if she really needs.
Have one priority at any one time
Having multiple conflicting priorities is a challenge. As a parent we have two; a child and a PhD. Know when to prioritise each one and don't feel guilty for doing so. Sometimes I have to prioritise my PhD and my daughter gets ignored or has to watch more TV than I would like her to. Other times I have to drop what I'm doing in my PhD and that's just what has to happen.
Knowing which one I am able to prioritise at any one time helps keep things moving smoothly.
There's no secret to being a parent and doing a PhD, it's just a different journey with different limitations and challenges.
If you're considering doing a PhD and you're a parent, in the blog post, 'Can I do a PhD With Kids?' I talk about some of the general advantages and disadvantages of navigating being a PhD-Parent.
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